Gerhard Schmidt

Chief Technical Officer, Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering (Emeritus)
Ford Motor Company

I spent a decade at Ford, before my recent retirement, looking at ways to advance automotive engineering and research. Although my job description was technically the same over those 10 years, the roles I played varied, and I considered myself at times a scientist, an engineer, a teacher and occasionally even a visionary.

The visionary part may be a bit overstated, but one has to be forward-thinking when considering long-term solutions for climate change and how to make better use of natural resources. In the early 2000s, the Company wasn’t ready to accept that climate change was a potential threat. We were fortunate that Bill Ford started to address the importance of climate change and translate his own visionary approach into the creation of products that could address the problem.

Yet even when the Company began to recognize the significance of climate change, the business environment at Ford couldn’t immediately support the development of potential solutions. A decade ago, nearly three-quarters of the vehicles we were building in North America were trucks and SUVs, which meant it would have been nearly impossible to achieve stringent emission reduction targets along the lines of those that were already in place in Europe.

The biggest challenge initially wasn’t just knowing what technologies were available to reduce vehicle emissions, but thinking about what Ford’s long-term product portfolio might look like.

Part of the ultimate success story for Ford stems from the fact that the Company fully integrated science into its product and operations decision-making processes. As a scientist, it was incredibly exciting to see Ford begin to integrate sustainability issues into our corporate strategies and to conclude that it was the right thing to do. Today, the Company recognizes that building more fuel-efficient products creates a stronger business. There’s no longer a conflict between having a strong business and building more-efficient powertrains and products. Being the best in class in fuel economy (which also means best in class in terms of CO2 emissions) gives Ford a distinct competitive advantage.

When developing new automotive technologies, you’re not looking a year or two ahead – you’re looking 10 to 15 years out. Every new technology objective at Ford must take into account four essential pillars: safety, quality, environmental sustainability and design. Put another way: Ford automobiles must be safe, clean and smart. After all, if the car doesn’t look nice and doesn’t offer the right features, customers won’t buy it.

To improve a vehicle’s carbon footprint, the auto industry must work together and with governments, academics and community organizations. We know already that significant emissions reductions won’t be possible simply by improving today’s powertrains. The long-term roadmap requires much greater use of battery electrification and other applications, such as fuel cells, and we’ll require new infrastructures and transportation systems as a result.

Looking ahead to the future, auto companies will need to deliver a balanced portfolio with alternative energy sources that are tailored to particular regions. For example, in Iceland, where there’s a high production of geothermal energy, automobiles might run only on fuel cells. But that wouldn’t be practical, for example, in Detroit.

Where environmental sustainability is concerned, the goal must be to make advanced, more-efficient technologies that are affordable for everyone – in other words, “the democratization of technology,” which was a philosophy that Henry Ford himself embraced when he started his Company.